The Secret-Keepers

1985

“Dad,” Graham persisted, “you didn’t answer my question!”cover-image

“Which question is that?” Hank Noel asked his preteen son.

“How’s work?”

Hank shared a glance with his 16-year-old, Kelsie, as he speared a potato. She pretended she didn’t see and proceeded to push her food around her plate. He glanced at his wife, Amber, who also offered no solace.

“Very muddy,” Hank finally replied.

Kelsie snorted and covered it with a cough. Hank rubbed her back, lowering his face to hide a smirk.

Dissatisfied with this answer, Graham frowned. “I was thinking about studying ecology, too. Or marine biology.”

“Both sound like good jobs.” Hank smiled at his youngest, relieved to have an opportunity to change the subject. “Lots of study involved.”

“How long did you have to go to school to become an ecologist?”

Hank chewed slowly. “Six years,” he eventually answered.

Graham fidgeted in his seat, then sat taller. “I wish I could go out into the field with you,” he said. “Just once, maybe for a day or two. Maybe just an hour, if you’re close.”

His father kept his eyes on his plate, shaking his head. “I wish you could too, buddy,” he replied softly. He ruffled his son’s hair, then smoothed it back down, but it did not save him from watching the boy deflate.

A heavy silence fell. Kelsie searched her family’s mournful faces, then sat up straight. “I was thinking about going into biology, too. Maybe, like, veterinary research. You know–”

She faltered as her father’s eyes widened with alarm. She felt Amber’s leg shift as she pressed a reassuring foot against his.

“–I’d like to study animal diseas–er–conditions, that can be transferred to humans.” She punctuated her sentence by shoving a piece of bread into her mouth.

Hank’s mouth moved, but it took him a few tries before he could speak. “That’s very sw–very noble.” He fixed her with his gaze. “It sounds very dangerous as well.”

Graham sulked by his plate, a hand on his cheek. “Ecology sounds boring.”

Hank barked a laugh. “Yes, well–”

THUD!

Kelsie shrieked as the house tremored from something falling on the back porch. Graham pushed out of his chair to investigate, but a high-pitched whine paused him. Hank placed a hand on his shoulder and pushed him back down. The whining grew clearer, more desperate.

“Puppy?” Kelsie whimpered.

Hank pulled back the thick curtain covering the back door window. The full moon illuminated a dark form sprawled across the porch at the top of the stairs leading to the back yard. Nocturnal eyes glowed at him, then faded.

“Attic, now,” Hank said.

“But–” Graham protested, but his mother’s hand on his arm silenced him. He allowed her to guide him away from the table and out of the kitchen.

wolf03Kelsie backed away from door, eyes wide with fear. Hank held up his hand to ease her panic. He was grateful for Amber’s calm expression as she bustled their children upstairs. As soon as he heard the scraping metal of the attic door closing, he slipped out the back. The kitchen light fell on a large body covered in black fur. The whining came out longer, softer.

“Don’t be scared,” Hank whispered. “I’m not going to hurt you, as long as you don’t hurt me.” He knelt by its side and reached out a hand, placing it hesitantly on the furry neck. It growled softly, but the growl faded into a whimper as Hank’s hand drifted down to where the fur was wet and matted. His hand came away red with thick blood.

Hank shook his head. “This is not good.”

*

Footsteps. Scraping. A loud yelp made Kelsie and Graham jump. From the attic, they could not see the back porch, but they could hear everything if they stood by the little window at the back of the house. Amber stood behind her children with her hands over her mouth, as if she were praying.

“Is he hurting it?” Kelsie whispered.

“I don’t know,” Amber replied.

“Do you know what it was?” Graham dared to speak a little louder.

Taking a deep breath, she stood straighter and ran a hand over his head. “I didn’t see it.”

The back door creaked wider and the footsteps came inside. Below their feet, another loud yelp sounded through the floor.

“He brought it inside?” Graham balked.

“Mom!” Kelsie growled through her teeth, eyes wide with fear.

Amber placed a hand on each of their shoulders. “We are safe in here,” she said firmly, “and your father can handle himself.”

“Against a thing?” Graham demanded.

Kelsie pursed her lips and dropped her eyes. “Yeah, I mean… Haven’t you seen him?”

He gaped at her. She met his gaze, then dropped her eyes again. He snapped his mouth shut and turned to his mother. “Is… is this why the attic is… fortified?”

Amber followed his eyes over the metal door and the reinforced windows. Before she could reply, a tap came on the door, a soft tattoo.

“Stay here.” She crossed to the door and opened the little window at eye level.

“Come downstairs,” they heard their father’s voice, “but the kids stay there.”

Turning, she found the children as close as their interpretation of obedience would allow. Hoping normal speaking volume would put them at ease, she said, “Wait here.”

“Should we lock the door?” Kelsie asked.

“Yes, just in case.” Amber closed the door behind her.

Kelsie turned the wheel, resetting the crossbeams.

“Great…” Graham muttered. “Now what?”

She shrugged. “How about a game of gin?”

He rolled his eyes and groaned.

*

Amber’s hand covered her mouth. “That’s not–”

“No, it’s not.”

When she realized she was gaping, she snapped her mouth shut. The creature laid across their couch was more man than beast, but covered in black fur, interrupted only by old white scars and gaping red cuts. Its short snout had several fresh, deep gouges, and its long ears were in tatters. Its arms and fingers were longer than a man’s, rippling with muscles and ending with dark talons.

Its eyes were squeezed shut, as if breathing hurt. A folded kitchen towel had been secured to its torso with an Ace bandage, but blood still seeped through it. The beast’s chest moved erratically–quickly for a few breaths, then a long, whining exhale. Amber feared each time it would be the last, but the breathing pattern continued.

“How did it–” She glanced down over the body, then blushed. “How did he find us?” She pulled a throw from the back of an armchair and stepped forward.

Hank placed a hand on her shoulder and pulled her back. “He probably smelled me.” He confiscated the blanket and spread it over the bottom half of the beast’s body. It whimpered and clutched at it.

“That’s not normal behavior, is it?” she whispered.

“No.”

“Then why–”

“It’s dying.”

Amber took a deep breath to allow this information to sink in. She stepped forward hesitantly. Knowing it was no use to stop her, Hank stood near the beast’s head.

She reached toward it, but paused. “How dangerous is it?”

“Well, you know what they say about dead wasps.”

She eyed the sharp talons and teeth. She reached down and ran her fingers through the fur between its ears. “These are fresh,” she said, inspecting the cuts across its snout. “Can I clean his face?”

Hank shrugged. “If that makes you feel better.”

“It’s no use?”

He searched the ceiling for hope, but shook his head. “He might survive if he can reach sunrise, if he’s strictly a full-moon changer. Transformation will fix enough of the damage for us to get him to Doc–”

“Holy cow!” Their son’s voice made them whip around

“Graham!” Amber barked.

He stood at the bottom of the stairs, with Kelsie leaning forward from the bottom step. Hank ran his hands over his face.

“What is it?” Graham asked.

“Is it safe?” Kelsie added.

“No, it’s not,” Hank said. “Go back–”

The beast whimpered and turned its head toward the noise.

“–up!”

Graham’s eyes shot wide as he saw the beast’s marred face. “Ohhhh myyy Goooo–”

“Do you know it?” Kelsie asked. Graham turned to her, brow furrowed.

“No, let’s go–Up!” Amber said, shooing them back upstairs. From the stairs, the door looked like a simple wooden-panel door until opened. She ushered them in.

Graham stood before her, refusing to move any farther without answers. “Mom, what is that?”

Amber pursed her lips in exasperation. She lowered herself to his eye-level. “It’s a werewolf.”

His eyes shot wide. “But werewolves don’t ex–”

“Now, listen.” Amber stood straight and addressed both of them. “You can never speak of this. Never mention it, not even to your most trusted friends. This has to stay a secret.”

Kelsie stepped next to her brother. “Mom, I think–”

“No,” Amber said firmly.

“He’s–”

“No!”

Groaning, Kelsie threw her hands up. “You’re impossible!” she moaned, collapsing on the couch.

“Is it hurt?” Graham asked, less assertive now. “How bad?”

Amber took a deep breath, not meeting his eyes. “It’s bad. Dad doesn’t think he’s going to survive.”

“Can we call Dr. Haight?”

“Dr. Haight isn’t home tonight,” she said quickly. She placed her hands on his shoulders again. “Listen, sweetie, even dying, it could be very dangerous. I need you and your sister to stay up here until one of us comes to get you, OK?”

“OK,” he said reluctantly.

“Promise?”

He made an X over his heart. “Promise.”

Amber turned to Kelsie. “Kel, please?”

Kelsie rolled her eyes and made a sloppy X over her chest. Satisfied, Amber pulled the door closed. Graham touched the wheel to reset the crossbeams, but sighed and decided not to. He plopped down on the couch next to his sister and sat in uneasy silence.

“Kel… Why did you ask Daddy if he knew that thing?”

She took a deep breath. “I don’t know. Don’t worry about it,” she said quickly. “Shuffle the cards.”

*

When Amber returned to the living room, a beast no longer laid across her couch, but a dark-featured, black-haired man. She checked the windows, although she knew it was wd09_listill dark outside. His hand hung limp to the floor and his chest did not move. The Ace
bandage hung loose across his torso. Despite the strange circumstances and the man’s
anonymity, she felt a pang of sorrow.

Hank must have felt the same. He sat at the man’s feet, his fists curled over his mouth. “It wasn’t so clear with all the fur,” he growled around them, “but it’s obvious now: Somebody did this.”

“Intentionally?” Amber asked, hesitating at the bottom of the stairs. “Like, a hunter or trapper?”

“Yes, like a hunter.”

“How do you know?”

Hank leaned up and pulled the towel away, but Amber squeezed her eyes shut and turned away. “Please, don’t!”

He tossed the towel back over the wound. “He was shot, but it wasn’t with a bullet. Not a regular bullet anyway.”

“Like… a silver bullet?”

Hank snorted. “Something like that… more like a stake. The hole is huge, and there’s not a slug, not that I can find.”

Amber shook her head and swallowed her tears. She reached into the linen closet under the stairs and pulled out some sheets. Kneeling in front of his feet, she presented them to him. He smiled sadly.

“No,” he sighed. “I don’t want to hide this. He’s a man now–He deserves an investigation. We’ll call the police.”

She dropped the sheets into her lap and sat back on her heels. Looking away, she said, “We need to talk to the kids first, get our stories straight.”

He ran his hands over his face again. This was turning into an exhausting night. Reaching down, he took the sheets from her lap and pulled her to standing. Wrapping his arm around her, he kissed her temple.

“I’ll be right up,” he whispered.

Amber pulled away from him reluctantly and disappeared upstairs. Spreading one of the sheets out, he let it drift down over the body.

*

Hank sat down on the attic couch and pulled his youngest onto his lap. “Oof! You’re getting too big for this!”

Despite being a month from teen-aged, Graham wrapped his arms around his father’s neck and hugged him tightly. Kelsie scooted close and leaned her head on his shoulder. The clock was ticking.

“Listen carefully,” Hank began. “We’re going to call the police. Obviously, we can’t tell them there was a man-wolf on the couch; They would think we’re crazy, right?”

“They’d believe you, Dad,” Graham said.

“Nevertheless–we’re not. If they ask you anything, you and your sister came straight up here and saw nothing. Don’t mention the whining or animal noises. Say it was a man, calling for help. Just, ‘Help. Please, help me.’ Nothing more.”

Kelsie leaned up. “Strong or weak?”

“What?” Her father blinked at her.

“His voice. Was it strong or weak?”

“Ah.” He nodded and pressed some fingers into his chest. “Weak, very weak, and raspy.”  He smiled proudly. “You’re so clever.”

Kelsie beamed.

“Is that where he was hurt?” Graham placed his fingers where his father had pressed. “Was he shot?”

“Yes, it looked like it.”

“With a silver bullet?”

“I don’t know.”

“Why’d they shoot him?” Kelsie asked.

“I don’t know,” Hank said again.

“Maybe he was trying to hurt someone…” she suggested softly.

Hank smiled and slid a hand around the back of her neck. “That’s very possible. But also… something for the police to investigate.”

“What were you guys doing while you waited up here?” Amber asked.

“We played gin,” Kelsie said firmly.

“Who won?”

“I did!” Graham cheered.

“Then I did!” Kelsie bucked back.

“Then I did, but I think both of you let me win,” Amber said, ending their rivalry. “Three games with three people is enough time.”

“And from now on,” Hank added, “never–”

“Never mention anything to anyone,” Graham said. “About werewolves,” he added.

Hank studied his son, then nodded.

“But what are we so afraid of?” His father frowned, but Graham continued: “I mean, I think it’s so cool! Everyone else will too. Or won’t believe us, and that doesn’t matter.”

“’Cause werewolf hunters, duh!” Kelsie rolled her eyes.

Graham wrinkled his nose. “There’s no such thing as werewolf hunters!”

“Yeah, you didn’t think there was any such thing as werewolves, either.”

Graham recoiled.

“Stooooooop!” Hank groaned, turning from one child to another. “For now, ‘Because we told you so,’ will have to suffice.”

“Dad…” Kelsie murmured pleadingly.

“No.” Hank held up a hand. “For now, there is still no such thing as werewolves or werewolf hunters. There is only a strange man–dead–on the living room couch, whom you’ve never seen because you were…”

“All up there, playing gin,” Graham finished with a nod.

“It should be in Mom’s room,” Kelsie said. She looked around the attic, furnished and fortified. “Otherwise they might want to come up here…”

Hank followed her gaze and nodded. “Your mother’s room, then. But, either way, you never saw him.”

“So, he’s not a monster anymore?” Graham asked.graham02

Kelsie’s brow furrowed. “Graham, don’t say that,” she hissed.

“He changed back to a man when he died,” Hank murmured.

“Can I… see it?” Graham sat up, face hopeful.

“Do not seek to see dead bodies,” Hank said sharply. When his son deflated again, he ruffled the boy’s hair, then nudged him off his lap to stand.

“Dad…” Kelsie said, grabbing his hand. “What if the cops stay late?”

Hank took a deep breath and closed his eyes.

“Yeah, can you call your boss and tell him you’ll be late?” Graham’s eyes were wide with hope. “Family emergency! He might even give you an extra day… or two.”

Hank closed his eyes, face riddled with pain. When he opened them, eyeliner ran black trails down his daughter’s face. She already knew his answer.

“I can’t, you know that.” He spoke as if every word stabbed him in the heart. “If the police stay late, I will just have to go.”

“It’s not fair!” Graham shouted.

Hank pulled him up for a tight hug.

“We never get to see you.” His son’s voice cracked. “Never. I miss you so much.”

“I know, buddy. I know. I miss you, too. All the time. I’m trying my hardest. I’m trying…” He held an arm out, and Kelsie joined her brother. “C’mon, now.” He kissed both of them. “I have to call the police now… Now, go sit with your mother in our room.”

Sniffling, they wrapped their arms around one another as they shuffled out of the attic. Amber looked like she was about to cry as well, but she had learned to hold it in. Hank wrapped his arms around her and kissed her hard.

“Kelsie’s right,” she whispered, audible only to him.

“Not ready,” Hank sighed, shaking his head. “I’m just not ready yet.”

They descended the attic stairs with their arms around one another.

***

The police left in the early hours of the morning. Hank tried to engage Graham in a game of chess while Kelsie latched onto his side. Eventually, they both affixed themselves under their father’s arms on the attic couch, chattering, sharing their lives until they fell asleep.

“Hank,” Amber whispered, “it’s five.”

Hank squeezed his eyes shut, then nodded. He could feel the sky lightening outside, although all of the windows were covered. Untangling himself, he lifted his son effortlessly off the couch. Amber pulled Kelsie to her feel.

“Graham’s right,” she muttered groggily. “This sucks.”

“Watch your mouth, young lady,” Amber chided.

“You think so, too.”

“Yes, I do.”

They stood together, watching Hank lay Graham on his bed and pull off his shoes before tucking him in.

“Don’t go, Dad,” Graham mumbled.

“I have to, bud. I’m sorry. I’m really, very sorry.”

“No, you’re not.” Graham rolled away from him and curled into a ball.

“Yes, I am,” Hank said firmly. “I love you, always remember that.”

Graham’s body shuddered. He sat up and wrapped his arms around his father’s neck. “I love you, too, Dad.”

kelsie03Kelsie was more resigned. She allowed her father to steer her toward her room with his hands on her shoulders.

“I bet none of the other girls your age have their fathers tuck them in,” Hank chuckled.

Kelsie barked a laugh, so much like her father’s. “None of the other girls only see their fathers once a month.”

“True.” He kissed her forehead and sat on the edge of the bed as she pulled the covers up to her chin.

“Dad,” she said, not groggy anymore, “I really think Graham is ready.”

“I know.” He brushed the hair away from her face.

“What are you so afraid of?”

Hank looked away and tocked his head from side to side. “Everything,” he finally said. “Whenever I visit, I wish I could keep you right here, just as you are, at that moment. Of course, I can’t. I come back a month later, and you’re older–you’re bigger–and I missed it. I’m not a part of it.”

“But you’re working on that, right?”

“I am, and Dr. Haight is helping.” He continued to stroke her hair, then held it out to admire how long it has gotten. Letting it fall, he leaned down and kissed her forehead.

“Be safe, Daddy.”

“I’m always safe,” he said, kissing her one more time.

When he stepped out of Kelsie’s room, he pulled the door shut. Amber wrapped her arms around his neck and kissed him. Kissing her back, he pushed her into the wall and tugged at her pajamas.

“Hank,” she murmured reluctantly, “we don’t have time.”

“OK.” He released her with a sigh. “Let’s go.”

Down into the kitchen, he unbuckled his belt and kicked off his shoes.

*

Graham shouted in alarm, but Kelsie’s hand was already over his mouth.

“Shh!” she whispered sharply. “Follow me.”

They ran out the back door, careful not to tread in the blood pooled around the top step. Their yard dead-ended in a tree line of thick woods. The full moon and the almost-sunrise lit their way just enough for them not to run into any trees or brambles. Kelsie turned to her little brother often with her finger to her lips. They tread as quietly as possible until they came to a ridge. She indicated they should get low, and they crawled to the top to peer over.

Their mother and father made a little more noise as they slid down to the bottom of the ridge. Amber laughed as she slipped on some leaves, although she also sniffled. Hank pulled her to her feet. Taking her face in his hands, he kissed her. She began to pull his shirt off over his head.

“Oh!” Kelsie gasped. She pressed a hand over her brother’s eyes. He pushed it away in time to see their father step out of his jeans.

Amber took his clothing, folded it, and hugged it to her chest. Hank stood naked and rose his face to the sky as the sun rose, illuminating the woods in golds and greens. His placid face broke into an uncomfortable grimace.

Kelsie clapped her hand over Graham’s mouth. “Don’t be scared. Don’t be scared. Don’t be–”

Graham’s eyes shot wide. Dark fur sprouted from their father’s skin, covering him in a thick layer. His jaw lengthened into a short snout. His fingers, arms, legs, and feet lengthened to inhuman proportions. His nails grew into talons. A tail jutted out from his back and grew bushy.

Kelsie could feel her brother trembling and tense, to bolt either to his mother or away. Hot tears ran from his eyes over her hand.

The beast their father became looked just like the one on their couch, only brown–the same color as their father’s hair–and less wild. Amber did not seem to notice the difference: She pressed herself against it. It towered over her.

“He’s still our father,” Kelsie whispered, so close her lips brushed his hear. “He still loves us.”

The beast’s pointy ears twitched, and she knew it heard. It wrapped its brawny arms around their mother, pressing its nose into her hair and against her face. It paused like that until the sun had risen, then released her with a whimper. Lowering itself to all fours, the beast grew even more wolf-like: Its fingers curled into paws and its limbs evened out. By the time it disappeared over the next ridge, it did not look much different from any other wolf, only larger. Much, much larger.

Now their mother stood alone at the bottom of the ridge below them. She hugged her husband’s clothing, breath coming out in shudders.

“C’mon,” Kelsie whispered. “We need to beat her home.”

*

“So, when he’s away, he’s a wolf?” Graham had wiped his tears away and stopped sniffling. They tramped through the woods, their backdoor within view.

“Yes.” Kelsie wiped away the last of her own tears.

“Is he dangerous?”

Kelsie made a face. “Not always. He usually remembers he’s human, he says. It’s between the moons he gets wild. But I’m sure he remembers us. I mean, we’re his kids. He’d be able to smell us and know.”

Graham was silent as they climbed the stairs of their back porch. “How did you find out?”

Kelsie took a deep breath, covering it by pushing the back door open. “I got lost in the woods,” she finally replied. “He found me.”

Graham swallowed. He stood in the doorway, looking back. “If he’ll remember us… we can bring him back home. He can stay a wolf; I don’t mind.” His voice cracked again.

“Maybe now that we all know, he will, but not right now. He’s not just running around out there in the woods; He’s looking for–”

Their mother emerged from the trees, still clutching Hank’s clothes to her chest. She sighed at the sight of them out of bed.

“–for a cure,” Kelsie finished.

Graham waited in the doorway as his mother approached. His chin began to wobble. She pulled him into a tight hug.

“I’m sorry we didn’t tell you, sweetheart,” she murmured into his hair. “We didn’t know if you would be able to keep it a secret.”

“I can keep it a secret, Mom, I promise.” He made an X over his heart.

“I know, sweetie.”

As he hugged her, his eyes landed on the pool of blood on the top step.

“M–Mom…”

“Yes, sweetie?”

Graham’s eyes scanned the woods, but they were empty except the fluttering of birds. He crowded his mother inside and closed the door behind them. “Are there really werewolf hunters?”

Amber watched him with sad eyes. “I don’t know, honey,” she said. She ruffled his hair and kissed him one more time. “But for now–”

Loud knocking from the front door interrupted her.

“He’s back!” Graham shouted, running for the front.

“Wait!” Kelsie, standing at the foot of the stairs, grabbed his arm. They stared at the front door. A silhouette of a large, broad man filled the shade drawn over the front-door window.

“That’s not Daddy,” Kelsie whispered.

Amber pushed her children into the stairwell as she called, “Who is it?”

“Law enforcement!” a deep voice replied.

“Mom, don’t,” Kelsie hissed.

Amber picked some fur off her shirt and stepped up to the door. She opened it to a man dressed all in black. He gave her a charming, toothy grin.

“Amber Noel?” he asked.

“Yes, sir?”

He held out his hand. “My name is Dean Schraeder. If you don’t mind, I have some questions about the incident last night.”

As Amber shook his hand, her eyes landed on an odd-shaped gun in a holster at his hip. She smiled back up at him. “I would invite you to come in and sit on the couch, officer,” she said, stepping aside, “but I’m afraid it’s covered in blood.”

*

Officer Schraeder nodded as Amber repeated to him the exact same thing she told the officers and EMTs earlier. He did not speak much, but kept his questions short. She showed him the couch, which she had covered in vain with a sheet, the trail of blood through the kitchen, and the back porch.

Hank had paused on their way out to pick tufts of fur from cracks in the boards. Amber was relieved for this small delay when Schraeder knelt and inspected the area. After a few minutes, he grunted with a nod. She led him back inside.

“Please, take a seat.” She gestured toward a chair at the kitchen table, although she wanted nothing more than to be rid of him. “Would you like some coffee or tea?”

“Oh, no, thank–” A thud through the ceiling interrupted him. He glanced up as the floor creaked and thumped. “Who all lives with you?”

“My husband, Hank, and our kids. Our daughter is sixteen, and our son turns thirteen next month.”

“Is your husband home? I’d like to speak with him as well.”

“I’m afraid he left soon after the police did. He’s an ecologist, so he’s out in the field more often than not.”

“Does he always come home around the same time each month?”

Amber frowned, then furrowed her brow as if she did not understand the question. “It varies…”

Footsteps thundered down the stairs. “Mooooooom! Kelsie’s hogging the bathroom again!”

Graham appeared at the mouth of the kitchen, looking as sleep-deprived as he actually was–or as if he had just rolled out of bed for school: He was fully dressed, with his book bag slung over one shoulder. His eyes widened when he saw Schraeder.

“I said I would be out in a minute, dweeb!” Kelsie pounded down after him. Her make-up was a little thicker than usual around the eyes. “Oh!” She froze as she saw Schraeder and looking him up and down.

“Cool gun!” Graham said with a nod. “What kind is it? Can I see it?” He stepped forward. Schraeder turned in his seat, moving the gun away.

“Absolutely not!” Amber said firmly. She turned to Schraeder. “You must get that from kids a lot.”

“Actually–”

“Mom, we gotta go. Early morning study session for Spanish, remember?”

“Oh!” Amber’s eyes shot wide. “Oh, yes, of course.” She gave Schraeder an apologetic smiled. “Are there any more questions? I need to get them to school.”

“Oh, no.” Schraeder did not meet her eyes as he shook his head. “I just needed to get a feel for the scene, really. I think we have everything else we need.” He stood and ruffled Graham’s hair as he passed. Graham scowled at his back.

“Feel free to call if you think of anything else!” Amber punctuated her sentence by holding open the front door. Before she could close it, the kids followed Schraeder onto the front porch. Kelsie scooped up the car keys on the way out.

An unmarked black van sat in front of the house. Someone was sitting behind the steering wheel. Schraeder climbed into the passenger seat and waved back at them.

“What a creep,” Kelsie muttered as she smiled and waved back.

The Noels piled into Amber’s station wagon, with Kelsie in the driver’s seat. Graham bunched up his jacket as a pillow and leaned his head against the window. Amber glanced at her children.

“Are you sure you want to do this?” she asked. “You’ve barely slept for the three nights.”

“I can sleep at school,” Graham muttered.

Kelsie reversed the car out of the driveway a little too fast. “We don’t really have a choice, Mom. Just smile and wave. I can always call you from the nurse’s office if I need to.”

The van had not moved. Schraeder looked as if he were taking notes in the passenger seat. Now they had a clear view of the dark-haired woman behind the wheel. She waved at them, silver rings glinting on her fingers. Amber smiled and waved back as Kelsie squealed the tires and shot toward the school.

***

Amber pulled in front of a small, inconspicuous brick house, but changed her mind and pulled into the driveway. She could not stop looking over her shoulder as she walked to the door. She hesitated, then knocked loudly. Every time she knocked, her remorse grew. After several minutes, steps approached the door. A grizzled face peered out at her from behind the curtained window. It disappeared and several locks clacked and turned, then the door flew open.

“I’m sorry to bother you today, Dr. Haight–”

“Is something wrong?” Despite the old man’s ill and exhausted appearance, he looked her over with concern. “Did Hank–”

“Oh, no, Hank’s fine. He went back this morning.” She looked over her shoulder. “Is it safe to come inside?”

Haight chuckled. “If you had asked me two hours ago, I would have said no.” He opened the door for her.

Amber stepped inside and dropped her purse on the coffee table in the foyer. “If I had asked you two hours ago, you would not have said anything at all.”

*

Dr. Haight moved as if every fiber of his body ached, so Amber sat him down on the couch and went into the kitchen to make them both some tea. He accepted it gratefully with trembling hands.

“Are you sure you’re OK, Dr. Haight?” She took a seat across from him.

“Just sore,” Haight assured her. He inhaled deeply over the cup. “I’ve always admired and envied how quickly Hank changed. I don’t see how he does it. I see why,” he added, gesturing toward her. “But not how. It just hurts so much. It’s nowhere near as painful to change… It’s almost euphoric. But changing back…” He shook his head. “It’s excruciating.”

“Well, I’m afraid I’m about to make your morning a little worse.”

Haight held up a finger for her to wait. He sipped his tea and settled back into the couch with a sigh. “I think I’m ready now.”

“The hunters came to our house this morning.”

“I spoke too soon.” He leaned up and slid to the edge of the cushion with an energy that belied his pained condition.

Amber explained quickly the events of the previous night and that morning. Haight listened with a stoic expression and nodded when she finished.

“Twelve years,” he sighed. “I’m surprised it’s taken them this long, honestly. Did they say anything that indicated they knew about Hank?”

“They asked if he always came home at the same time of the month.”

Haight raised his brows.

“I told him it varied.”

“Good, good.” He nodded. “Did he say anything indicating he suspected there were others around?”

Amber shook her head. “He didn’t say much–just asked questions. And he didn’t ask about any others, just where Hank was, and who all lived in the house with us.”

Haight pinched the bridge of his nose and leaned forward. He sat in silent thought. “You and Hank,” he finally spoke, “do you have an emergency plan? Should something happen, he will meet you somewhere?”

Amber’s mouth moved a few times. She shook her head. “We played with the idea, but never made one.”

An edge of panic was invading her voice. Haight softened his expression. “We are safe for at least a month,” he said gently. “Hunters tend to look for changers like me, and the poor soul who died on your couch. If we’re lucky, they won’t even know there’s anything else. They may believe he approached the first house he came to–as a man, since he was dying–and you, your family, are completely incidental.”

Amber let out a long breath. Haight’s expression turned serious again.

“But as soon as you see Hank, you need to make a plan.”

She nodded. “And what about you? If they stick around town, one of them might recognize you?”

A strange smirk played on his lips. “It’s been twelve years,” he assured her. “I doubt very much they remember me.”

1974

The sleepy Delaware suburb was accustomed to seeing strange folk, usually confined to the diner, gas station, and convenience store on the interstate exit. Sometimes people would venture farther to the grocery store. If an unfamiliar car ventured any farther, locals sat up with concern or suspicion.

Anthony Haight was neither concerned nor suspicious as a leather-clad crew pulled up in a large black van. The aroma of sweat and leather billowed in as they entered, two large men and a tall, lean woman.

“Oh, I’m so sorry!” the woman said as she bumped into Mrs. Ackerman on her way in. Her tone was so friendly, the shoppers who had looked up with concern as the three entered returned to their shopping. The woman squeezed Mrs. Ackerman’s hand apologetically.

Haight spared them little more than a glance and a sniff. He grabbed a gallon of milk and shuffled toward the front counter. The men and woman split up, going down separate aisles. The woman browsed the selection of junk food near the register. She didn’t smell like a woman who indulged in junk; She smelled like a vegetarian.

“Huh,” Haight grunted, pointing to the shelf. “I wouldn’t risk it.”

“Good point.” She smiled at him. She was pretty, but there was something in her eyes… She didn’t smell like drugs, either, though. “Thank you,” she said, reaching out to stroke his hand.

“Ah!” Haight recoiled.  A red blister swelled on the back of his hand.

“Oh!” Her eyes lit up.

“No worries,” he said quickly. “One of your rings must have caught me…” He shook his head and smiled tightly.

“But it looks like a burn!” Her voice was excessively loud.

Haight froze. He now understood the look in her eyes. He looked to the two men, both staring over the shelves. Haight’s neighbors looked confused and concerned.

Dropping the milk, Haight ran for the door. The three ran after him.

*

Haight cried out as the collar dug into his skin, burning and choking. He coughed and sputtered as the man holding the leash tightened and loosened it.

“We know there are others,” the woman said. She didn’t look so sweet or smell so clean anymore. She lifted a club and swung it into Haight’s ribs. “Where are they? Tell us and we’ll make this quick.”

The third man stood near the mouth of the alley. He had an odd, wicked-looking firearm in his hands.

“There’s not–!”

She swung the club again and Haight managed to grab it. The woman grasped his wrist and squeezed. The silver rings hissed against his skin. Haight groaned.

“Cops,” the man with the firearm said in a tone that could have been commenting on the weather. He backed into the alleyway as lights flashed.

A siren chirped. The collar around Haight’s neck tightened far more than it had been before. The man pointed the gun at Haight’s head.

“Stop! Put the gun down!”

The man glanced at the two cops jumping out of their cruiser. Haight kicked out, knocking him back into the opposite wall with surprising force. A bullet hit the cement by Haight’s arm. The officers opened fire. The three strangers darted and dodged as they ran to the opposite end of the alley.

“Good luck explaining this!” the woman cried as she turned the corner.

“Doc?”

Haight recognized the smell of the young officer, Billy Hamlin, before he recognized his face. Good Billy Hamlin. Young, innocent Billy Hamlin…

G-get this off me,” Haight rasped, gesturing to the choke chain. Billy loosened it and pulled it carefully over Haight’s head.

“They’re gone.” The second officer returned, re-holstering his gun. Daryl Horn, not so young or innocent. The smell of chewing tobacco surrounded him like an aura.

“Jesus, Doc, what was that all about?”

Haight clutched his ribs and shook his head. “Hoodlums,” he rasped.

*

Banging resounded throughout the house. Amber Noel hesitated, then lowered baby Graham into his crib and hurried to the door.

“Oh, my God!” She covered her mouth at the signed of the battered, bleeding man leaning on the doorframe. “Dr. Haight?”

“They… they found me,” he huffed.

Amber ducked under him arm before he slid off the wall. She helped him inside, but he paused and turned back to slam the door shut.

“Dr. Haight, what happened? Who found you?”

“Hunters – they came for us.”

“Us?”

“M-me… and Hank.”

“Hank? They’re after Hank?” Panic strangled her, pitching her voice high.

Haight patted her hand as if she were the one who needed comforting. “I don’t think they know what they’re after–they were looking for men, for humans. But they’ll find him eventually if they keep looking.”

*

The sky was paling when Amber Noel, baby in her arms and sleepy little girl trotting beside her, piled bags and children into a station wagon and drove away. Haight watched them from the window. As soon as they were out of sight, he collapsed onto the couch and waited for the moon to rise.

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